For U.S. travelers fantasizing about a vacation in Portugal, it might be some time before that dream becomes a reality, as the country remains off-limits to Americans seeking nonessential travel.
But what I can tell you is that Portugal seems to have a head start for if and when that time comes. I can say this from experience as I witnessed firsthand how public health and safety policies are being implemented — not only for the well-being of travelers, but also for hospitality workers and locals.
While American tourists can’t visit Portugal now, I was permitted to travel there through a business exemption — as a journalist to observe and report on how Portuguese tourism was coping and getting ready for reopening. I flew on TAP Air Portugal’s new nonstop route from Boston to Ponta Delgada, which ceased for the winter and will recommence in the spring. I traveled with Azores Getaways, first to São Miguel Island and Terceira Island in the Azores, and then for an overnight in Lisbon.
To enter the Azores, Americans must provide proof of a negative COVID-19 RT-PCR test taken 72 hours before departure. Scheduling two tests — the second, a backup — I bought travel insurance with coronavirus-related coverage, a ton of masks, and as much hand sanitizer as TSA sizing requirements would allow. I also prepared letters in English and Portuguese, explaining that I was to see how officials were responding to the coronavirus pandemic.
My homework also included me uploading a Risk Assessment and Early Detection of SARS-CoV-2 questionnaire to receive a form with an identifying QR code that I had to bring along.
My prepping was paired with reading about Turismo de Portugal’s Clean & Safe program, which awards a yearlong stamp of approval to tourism, hospitality, and entertainment businesses, including TAP, complying with COVID-19-related hygiene and cleaning requirements. (Portugal was among the first destinations to be awarded with World Travel & Tourism Council's "Safe Travels" endorsement in May.)
After having my temperature and test results checked at the airport gate before boarding, I was given an antibacterial wipe packet on the way to my seat. We were required to wear face masks during the flight, with the exception of during dinner. Plus, TAP’s fleet of new Airbus Neo aircrafts feature HEPA filters that clean the air several times a minute.
Exiting João Paulo II Airport on São Miguel Island seemed almost post-apocalyptic. Hazmat suit-wearing workers directed us along a line similar to customs across from open-facing container workspaces. As I went along what I assumed was the line for negative test holders, I was directed to a counter, where I presented my paperwork to an official. I answered some questions, signed a document, and got the nod plus a slip of paper that permitted me to enter Terceira Island in a few days. The process was efficient, taking no more than 20 minutes.
At the Hotel Marina Atlântico, I encountered plexiglass windows installed between guests and the reception desk, and hand sanitizer bottles and stations throughout the common areas. A fixed seal on my room door indicated that it was cleaned and no one had been inside since then; I would tear it upon entry. Inside my room, I noticed the TV remote was placed in a bag, as it can get pretty germy.
In the hotel restaurant, as I would come across at other properties, masked waitstaff provided paper placemats with QR codes for bringing up menus on our phones, as well as cutlery sealed in bags.
At the Terra Nostra Garden Hotel in Furnas, the check-in process was shorter. Instead of reciting information on amenities at the desk, reception called guests in their rooms to provide details. Two housekeeping teams handled room cleaning — one removed everything after checkout, the other cleaned and sanitized. And in the restaurant, diners received a bag to store their face masks when eating — a much-appreciated gesture, especially since mine often ends up smashed in my pocket or purse.
The Terceira Mar Hotel had similar safeguards, plus a dropbox at the reception desk for sanitizing keys after checkout.
In Portugal, tourist attractions were open, but remained quiet, especially during the week when I visited. From Pico Do Carvão and Caldeira das Sete Cidades on São Miguel to Terceira Island’s Algar do Carvão and Gruta do Natal, I felt like we had the place to ourselves.
At restaurants, diners seemed comfortable eating indoors, as I had noticed one morning at Quinta dos Açores and night at Taberna do Teatro on Terceira. (Right now, only five diners can sit at an indoor table; cafes and bars close between 8 and 11 p.m., restaurants by 1 a.m.).
In Lisbon, I found a varying amount of people out and about on a Saturday and Sunday afternoon. Praça do Comércio was nearly empty, Time Out Market Lisboa was semi-vacant, and the crowds at Avenida da Liberdade were scant. Portugal’s government has started requiring masks in busy outdoor spots.
At Tivoli Avenida Liberdade Lisboa, the property went from offering their popular breakfast buffet to sit-down meal service, and to cleaning commonly used surfaces and objects several times a day. The hotel reopened on July 31 after shutting down in late March.
Currently, guests are mainly traveling from Europe, according to Joana Jeunehomme, regional director of public relations for Minor Hotels Portugal, which includes Tivoli Avenida Liberdade Lisboa. She notes that public awareness on what’s being done to keep and make people feel safe, from temperature checks to sanitization practices, is key to tourism recovery.
I thoroughly enjoyed my first time in Portugal, but as a traveler, I will likely wait until further research advancements to return. As public health regulations and travel policies continue to change, so will our planning.
It’s crucial to follow updates on government websites and news reports before booking a trip. According to the Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center, Portugal has reported over 160,000 COVID-19 cases and over 2,700 deaths.
With a final temperature check in Portugal, at the gate for my TAP flight from Lisbon to Newark, I wiped down my airplane seat area with peace of mind. Now, it’s onto quarantining and a follow-up test.
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